POP / A big hello from Hawaii: Seeking to recover after Steely Dan, Walter Becker hid out on an island in the sun. From where he granted Giles Smith a rare interview

Giles Smith
Thursday 27 January 1994 00:02

If you want to speak to Walter Becker, at home in Hawaii, you phone his record company in Los Angeles. Then you hang up and his record company calls you back. Then you hold and listen to a lot of international fizz and a couple of alarming clicks. And finally someone in Los Angeles connects Hawaii to London. At which point Becker's light but dry drawl comes on, deadpan, explaining everything.

'In the rock'n'roll world, it's considered declasse ever to call anyone direct. There has to be an intermediary involved, who says 'We'll patch you through to his car', or wherever. That's just the way it is, in the world of rock'n'roll.'

So here we are, patched through to the Hawaiian island of Haleakala. Rock'n'roll] Haleakala is the world's largest dormant volcano, according to the atlas. Becker moved here in late 1981, a few months after the group Steely Dan dissolved. He lives with his wife Elinor, who is a yoga teacher. They have two children. Becker has a recording studio over to one side of the island, on some land owned by his wife in the middle of a cattle ranch, looking out across the ocean. This is where he works, he says, for long hours, such that occasionally he finds himself walking back over to the house 'to make sure my family hasn't moved out'.

And this is where he produced Kamakiriad, the album released last year by his partner in Steely Dan, Donald Fagen; and this is where Fagen is currently returning the favour by helping to record Becker's first solo album, which we may finally hear this summer. (Though being Becker and Fagen - which is to say, absurdly scrupulous, meticulous to the point of paranoia - we probably shouldn't count on it.) Last autumn, between these recording sessions, Becker and Fagen toured America as Steely Dan, something they vowed, some 19 years ago, they would never do again. The tour was a sell-out and hugely acclaimed. The band's time seemed to have swung round again.

Except it hasn't been as smooth as that for Becker. When he arrived in Hawaii, there were things he wanted to get over. There were the injuries to his leg, sustained in a bad car accident. There was his own drug habit. And then there was the matter of the death of a girlfriend in his New York apartment. Rock'n'roll. There were years in the early 1980s when getting through to Walter Becker was more than a merely technical challenge.

STEELY DAN were never generous with interviews, even at the height of their powers. And generally the attention went to Donald Fagen who was, albeit reluctantly, the band's singer and frontman. It was easy to parcel Becker up as the sidekick, an impeccable bassist certainly, but chiefly someone who stood by in a series of increasingly unsuitable hairstyles and beards - or at least, rough sketches for beards, which never quite made it into development. As a corrective to this, one should remember how Fagen himself once said that the band's 'attitude', its wit, its cynicism and coolness, ultimately stemmed from Becker. His smartness was clearly crucial to their tone.

Not surprisingly, since the split, Becker has been, if possible, even less forthcoming. But now he will talk, prompted by the re-release by MCA of the band's entire works - all seven, highly cherished albums collected on four Compact Discs in a faintly odd green box.

'It was the Gaucho album that finished us off,' says Becker. 'We had pursued an idea beyond the point where it was practical. That album took about two years, and we were working on it all of that time - all these endless tracking sessions involving different musicians. It took for ever and it was a very painful process.'

It also cost a fabulous amount of money. 'Which we weren't the least bit concerned about, until MCA bought out ABC, the little label we were signed to. Suddenly these big guys owned the roster and the first thing they did was look down it and say, 'What's with these Steely Dan guys? You mean they're in the studio, running up a huge bill making an album which nobody here has heard a note of?' So, they stopped sending money. We had to finish it with our own, about dollars 50,000, the merest drip compared with the vast ocean of red . . .'

This was in 1980, a decade after Becker and Fagen, who met at college in New York, had signed to ABC as songwriters and had rented apartments on Magnolia Boulevard in the San Fernando valley. 'ABC had all these schlocky, bubblegum acts, and we had to come up with suitable material for them. In which we were amazingly unsuccessful. It was just a stall anyway, until we could get our own band.'

They released the first Steely Dan album in 1972. It had taken a relatively simple three months to record, 'although,' Becker says, 'even then, there was a point halfway through when I remember thinking to myself, 'Hell, why don't we start over?' ' They gave up touring, locked themselves away from record company representatives and built a series of increasingly sophisticated pop-jazz records with a rotating roster of costly session musicians, with whom they were said to be less than gentle. 'Nonsense. We were pussy cats. It's just we were perfectionist pussy cats. It had to be perfect or it would drive you crazy working on it - the flaws would become magnified into giant craters.'

After Aja in 1977, Becker and Fagen moved back to New York. 'I had always wanted to move back and finally Donald agreed. We had played out California. It was a cynical fondness that we had for it. But the minute we moved to LA, we had started writing about New York and the minute we moved back, we started writing about LA. That's just the typical perverse deal.'

It started to go badly wrong in January 1980. Becker's girlfriend, Karen Stanley, died of a drug overdose in his apartment on the Upper West Side. (Some versions of this story claim that Stanley was underage, which is untrue. As Brian Sweet, Steely Dan's biographer, points out, Stanley's name appears in credits on early Steely Dan albums.) A year later, Stanley's mother attempted to sue Becker for dollars 17m. Becker threatened to counter-sue and the case disappeared.

Meanwhile, in February 1980, Becker had walked into the path of an oncoming taxi in Central Park. 'We were quantum criminals,' Becker claims. 'The car and I were attempting to occupy the same place at the same time.' He was in a wheelchair for much of the mixing of Gaucho and on another planet much of the rest of the time. Later, Fagen spoke of the pair's need for 'a vacation' from one another, but it was clear that Becker was in a state beyond collaboration. The partnership was dissolved in June 1981. 'I was busy dissolving everything else about myself,' Fagen says, 'so it seemed the logical extension.'

There was no news from Hawaii until 1985, when Becker reappeared as the producer of a China Crisis album. Numerous other productions followed, many of them with artists on the Windham Hill and Triloka jazz labels. And then came the reunion with Fagen. Becker looked sharp, cleaned up, neatly barbered.

So we're hanging on for that first solo album. The two new numbers he previewed in last year's Steely Dan show in New York were, inevitably, the cue for a large number of people to stretch their legs. But what these people missed were two lithe melodies sung in a surprisingly rich tone. And also the sight of Becker leaning easily into the microphone to deliver them - an advertisement, if one were needed, for taking 19 years off.

(Photographs omitted)

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